Spoken word poetry, or slam poetry, is generally characterized by topics that the audience can relate to and a writing style that is conducive to performance. Spoken word poems are quite different than the average Dickinson or Levine piece. If you're interesting in writing slam poetry, there are several things you should do when you write in order to fit the genre, and knowledge about spoken word is also transferable to any public reading situation.
Slam poems are similar to songs in length—usually three to five minutes when performed. Some of the complicated metaphors and abstract ideas we like to use in our shorter, more “literary” poems require multiple readings on the part of the audience. This mastery is great if your goal is to show your prowess in print, but it doesn’t work so well in a crowded room. Keep in mind that your audience will only hear this poem once. As a result, the poetic devices you choose should be easily understood the first time they are heard. Rhyme is a good way to keep your audience engaged. End rhyme can sometimes sound contrite or cute, but internal rhyme, used within lines or stanzas rather than at the end, can be a valuable asset. Repetition and alliteration are probably the easiest and most effective devices to use in this genre because they cater to the ear rather than the eye or the mind.
Speaking of the mind, it is imperative that you choose a topic you are passionate about. Spoken word performers are often known for political activism, and their poems frequently feature social commentary. Choose a topic that you know a lot about—one that you would like to, and could, talk about all night given the opportunity. Spoken word must be emotional, and it is often deeply personal. Chances are that if the topic you have chosen makes you emotional or gets you excited, either your audience will know and care about it too, or the vigor you possess while speaking about it will inform them and at least keep them interested.
Both choosing your technique carefully and picking a topic that is dear to you play into one of the most important aspects of spoken word. A spoken word performance is always best if you have memorized your poems, and that is easier to do if you love the subject of your poem and you wrote the poem in a way that allows you to easily remember what comes next and to improvise if you get stuck. Now, why is it so important to memorize your poems? Reading a spoken word poem should really be thought of as a performance rather than a reading. Your voice, face, and hands are just as important as the content of the poem. You’ll need your hands free so you can gesture, and you need to connect with the audience on a level that can’t be achieved looking down at a sheet of paper. Similarly, if you know your poem well enough to recite it without reading from a hardcopy, your familiarity with the poem will be heard in your voice. You’ll become more comfortable reciting it on stage—and that leaves extra room for pathos and improvisation.
Spoken word poetry has gained a lot of attention in recent years--and not all of that attention is positive. While some people are praising the renewal of the oral tradition, a few others say this new style is an insult to what the oral tradition used to be and all the good qualities of printed, literary poems. However, spoken word, like any genre, is not effective unless it is done right. Remembering to write for a live audience, love your topic, and memorize your poem is a great start.
More resources on spoken word poetry:
Sarah Kay’s TED talk: “If I Should Have a Daughter” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0snNB1yS3IE
Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay: “An Origin Story” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esgfG3BoAPc
Lauren Zuniga: “To the Oklahoma Lawmakers” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leE4_k9zxEI